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Education for the Future

Are East Side schools equipped to provide students with the skills they need to excel in the 21st century?

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Think back to your school days. Do you remember the feel (and smell) of chalk? Choosing between wide-ruled and college-ruled notebooks? Scrambling around in your desk or backpack, looking for a sharp pencil or your favorite pen to take notes with? Visiting the school library and learning to use the card catalog to find books or conduct research? The joy of finally being allowed to use a calculator during math class?

Many of these activities belong to the past; now, technology is changing the way educators teach and the way students learn. Today’s students are “digital natives,” accustomed to finding the answer to any question on Google and able to type faster with their thumbs on a phone than we can with all ten fingers on a keyboard. They are deeply immersed in technology, with the online world as relevant to them as their physical surroundings.

U.S. institutions are increasingly emphasizing the need for technological savvy. The United States Department of Education published a National Education Technology Plan which calls for “all involved in American education to ensure equity of access to transformational learning experiences enabled by technology.” National Educational Technology Standards (NETS) developed by the International Society of Technology in Education (ISTE) offer a framework for digital education. As of 2016, public schools in the United States provided one computer for every five children, and they spent over $3 billion on digital content. Over 70 percent of RI school districts have gone one-to-one, with every student having access to his or her own device, and nearly 83 percent of all schools in RI provide shared carts of devices for student use.

While different schools implement technology in different ways, they all incorporate it into the classroom experience, because they recognize that we need to meet kids where they are. Engaging today’s students means moving beyond lecture-style classes and instead teaching “21st century skills” like creativity and collaboration. There is also a growing emphasis on STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering and Math) and STEAM (the A stands for Arts).

The Jewish Community Day School was one of the first schools to have a Design Lab, and it remains the only school on the East Side with one completely dedicated to elementary school students. With the help of the Brown/RISD STEAM club, the concepts of design thinking are incorporated into the curriculum at each grade level, teaching students to develop their skills of observation and empathy. As students collaborate and problem-solve, they also learn that failure is often a necessary step on the road to success.

Students in Pre-K through fifth grade all utilize the Design Lab and learn the process of design thinking. Head of School Andrea Katzman describes the program as exploring “the interplay between Jewish values, the 21st century skills of design thinking and the subjects of STEAM. Over the years, our students have used design thinking to fabricate a ‘recharging station’ for children looking for a space to meditate and reflect, to re-imagine a school-wide recycling program and to create a meaningful and joyous religious service.”

“We are working with girls on computational thinking, coding, building, odyssey of the mind – we are instilling a mindset of problem solving and an interdisciplinary approach to learning,” says Lincoln School’s head of school Suzanne Fogarty. “We live in a tech-driven world, and there are so many industries where women are left behind. We can make a real dent in that by providing these experiences early on.”

Toward that end, Lincoln is building a STEAM Hub for Girls, slated to open in January 2018. The new space will bring existing partnerships with RISD, the Brown School of Engineering and the Steel Yard to campus, providing additional opportunities for students to learn about design concepts. The space will be flexible and versatile, with students and teachers helping to shape its use; in addition, the Hub will house an art gallery and may host special events, such as Lincoln’s Speaker Series, for the public.

Fogarty credits the elimination of Advanced Placement courses with “giving us the gift of time, allowing us to offer more sophisticated interdisciplinary learning experiences.” The courses offered in the STEAM Hub will not be purely technology courses –  for Fogarty, the A in STEAM represents all of the humanities. Working together, teachers blur the lines between subjects and departments, since engineers and scientists need to be able to speak and write well and philosophers and poets need to be strategic thinkers.

PHOTOGRAPHY BY GABRIEL A. COONEY

Lincoln School also co-hosted the first all-girls Hack-A-Thon in Rhode Island with Sophia Academy this past April, and they are planning a similar event for next spring. Roughly 100 students from both schools in fifth through tenth grades worked together to create apps (using Code.org’s App Lab) that addressed a real-world issue relating to the environment and Earth Day. Sophia Academy’s Head of School Gigi DiBello explains that the collaborative spirit was the driving force of the event; while solving problems, the girls also had a good time. At the end of the Hack-A-Thon, each team presented their apps to the whole group.

Susan Amsler-Akacem, head of the Technology Department at Lincoln, emphasizes the importance of providing thoughtful, structured experiences like these for girls, teaching them to see themselves as engineers, scientists, designers and hackers. “Starting in Lower School,” she says, “we break down the barriers and teach them that they can do anything.”

Moses Brown School is developing a framework called the Expert Thinking Model to foster students’ abilities to apply factual knowledge to creatively solve real world problems. As STEM Director Laurie Center explains, “We want to cultivate innovators and entrepreneurs.” In Lower School, the focus is on exposing children to programming concepts and having fun; later, when the work becomes more challenging, the students already have a passion for it.

Middle school students all use iPads to work both individually and collaboratively. Center finds that the program helps kids enhance their organizational skills, communicate well and expand their presentation abilities. The school also offers engineering and design-build classes, as well as an AP Computer Sciences Principles course that enrolled 37 students last year.

The Upper School has a BYOD program: all students use their own devices along with the Microsoft suite. The Engineering Design course has been very popular, as has a course in video and multimedia presentation. Many senior projects are design- or technology-based; last year, a student worked with experts at Hasbro to design and build a prototype of a human wrist. “We find that more and more kids are interested in these fields, and we wanted to build the curriculum to support them.”

As part of a new program in Entrepreneurship & Social Innovation, MB will open the “Y-Lab” this fall, a 5,000-square-foot maker space and engineering lab. The Y-Lab will provide a space for students to practice project-based learning using a blend of low-tech materials and high-tech equipment, including 3-D printers, CNC mills, a robotics area and a media room.

Wheeler School has focused on the innovative use of space as they’ve incorporated technology into the school. The Design-Innovate-Build Lab (DIB Lab) intends to bridge some of the gaps in the STEAM curriculum while providing students and faculty with hands-on opportunities to engage with new technologies. The lab houses a 3-D printer, robotics components, and a CNC milling machine.

Nupur Shridar, outgoing director of the DIB Lab, explains that the Lab is “a space to be messy, to design things, and to go through the formalized design thinking process, at the heart of which is the idea of prototyping. It’s great to be able to teach a subject where, if something doesn’t work out the first time through, that’s part of the learning process.” She stresses that, as kids go through that process, they gain resiliency and a growth mindset. The Lab serves as a hub and a resource for classes throughout the school.

The libraries at Wheeler have also undergone a change. The Information Learning Commons are designed to be flexible and to foster inquiry and project-based learning. Since students in middle and high school all have devices (Chromebooks in sixth and seventh grade, their own devices in eighth grade and beyond), the Learning Commons provides digital access to information and opportunities to do collaborative work.

“The space also supports literacy in all of its mediated forms, print as well as electronic. We have over 30 databases available and our catalog is online, but you’ll see plenty of print sources here, as well,” says Christine Smith, Library Department Head. Because Wheeler also has an audiovisual facility with a green screen and A/V production capabilities, students are able to research topics and present the material they’ve learned in multiple ways. “We fully integrate the technology in a meaningful way,” Smith says, “as a learning tool rather than an add-on.”

In addition, the school has expanded its technology course offerings. High school courses include an introduction to website design, AP Computer Science and Introduction to Engineering. Through the Aerie Program, two students participated in an independent study of Advanced Engineering, producing a musical staircase that the whole school was able to enjoy.

OFF THE EAST SIDE

One of the newest high school options in the Providence public schools is P-TECH – Pathways in Technology Early College High School. Located at the Providence Career and Technical High School (PCTA), the dual enrollment program opened in 2016 to allow students to get an Associates degree in Information Technology through CCRI while completing their high school diploma.

Fifty students enrolled in 2016 as freshmen, and another fifty students will enter this fall. With longer school days and intensive summer academies, this school doesn’t appeal to everyone. It’s a wonderful option, however, for highly motivated students who are interested not only in technology, but also in getting a jump start on their careers, regardless of the field they ultimately choose to pursue.

High school teachers and professors from CCRI work closely together to meet the needs of the students. Director Jodi LaFauci stresses that this program arose out of necessity: “This is a language students are already speaking. They are very quick to learn databases, Microsoft, working with spreadsheets – even more abstract technologies, like coding, where there is a balance between design, theory, creativity. These are the natural factors that our students bring to the table.”

The Tech Collective is a partner as well, bringing the voice of industry to the program. The students are matched one-to-one with mentors from local technology companies, and they meet and communicate numerous times throughout the academic year. As LaFauci says, “We are trying to point students into a lucrative career that starts on day one, in a field of interest to them.”

And the students are rising to the occasion. Of the first 50 freshman, 32 have made the honor roll at least twice and 12 of them have perfect attendance. Combining comprehensive high school education and technology is a new model that expands the notion of a traditional high school education.

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As technology becomes ubiquitous in classrooms, schools are striving to provide information literacy in addition to fluency with the devices themselves through their library/media specialists or in the classroom. Savvy students must be able to distinguish among online sources, determining which are reliable and identifying false representations of fact.

In addition, students must be taught the rules of digital citizenship, or the guidelines for using technology responsibly. They need to understand that their online profiles are extensions of themselves, that the way they represent themselves online can have ramifications and how to protect themselves and their identities. Providence’s schools integrate digital literacy and digital citizenship into their curriculum at various grade levels.

As George Couros, educational and leadership consultant and author of The Innovator’s Mindset, put it, “Technology will never replace great teachers, but technology in the hands of great teachers is transformational.” Incorporating technology in an innovative way transforms the experiences of students – not only in school, but also in the world.